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Power: The dangers of misperception

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This post is part of the US-China: Measuring decline and rise debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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10 February 2012 15:28


This post is part of the US-China: Measuring decline and rise debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Rob Ayson's characteristically wise and subtle post makes the very important point that what matters about power is not what you've got, but what you choose to do with it; human choices like that are subjective things, and hence hard to plot on graphs, let alone predict. 

As Rob hints, choices about power are especially hard to plot or predict because power is, to use a word he taught me to apply in this context, transactional: your choices about the exercise of power towards me profoundly influence my choices about the exercise of power towards you, and vice-versa. Absolutely right.

So, two modest points in response, the first just by way of elaboration. A key element of Rob's argument is that one of the biggest subjectivities in strategic choices is in perceptions about respective power. What will drive the strategic choices about one another in Beijing and Washington over the next few years is not the reality of their relative power – whatever that might turn out to be — but the perceptions of it in each place.

That recalls Geoffrey Blainey's argument in his excellent The Causes of War written back in the 1980s. Blainey argued that the main causes of wars are differences of perception between countries about their relative power, which they end up going to war to resolve. 

That is why perceptions of power are so important, and differences in perceptions are so dangerous. If the US and China end up going to war in Asia over the next decade or two, it will be in large measure because each believes they are strong enough to dominate Asia against the wishes of the other. My bet is that both are wrong, but that won't stop them fighting to find out.

The second point is by way of defence of the efforts of those trying to assess the balance of relative power in some kind of objective terms despite its inherently subjective nature. I think Rob might be gently hinting that we should save our breath, and wait and see what the great powers choose. From an analytic perspective that's right, but of course we don't just want to understand the world but to influence it. The 'lumps' in power transitions that Schelling talks about are very disruptive indeed, so we ought to try to smooth them out as much as possible.

If Blainey is right, then one of the best ways for us to help manage power transitions and smooth the lumps is to do all we can to understand, and convey to both sides, how power is shifting, thereby minimising the difference of perceptions of power between them. 

Or, to put that more specifically, the US and China are more likely to avoid war if America does not persist in believing it can perpetuate its primacy in Asia over the next few decades in the face of China's power, and if China does not entertain the illusion that it will be able to displace the US from Asia completely. Which is why I think it is a good idea to keep talking about these issues.  

Photo by Flickr user The White House.

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